Auburn, Ala.--Losing seniors Alex Kozan and Robert Leff , and moving Braden Smith out to right tackle in spring practice, has meant a new look for Coach Herb Hand at the guard positions. With Austin Golson back as the starter at center things look good at one of the most important positions on offense, but after that up front Hand said it’s still a work in progress.
“Braden has only been repping at right tackle, but we know what he can do at guard,” Hand said. “We feel pretty good about that. Mike Horton has been playing both right and left guard. Austin Golson has been playing primarily center and has taken a few reps at left guard and we'll continue to increase those as the spring goes.
“Marquel Harrell has primarily played left guard, but he's taken a few reps at right guard as well. Darius James has primarily played left tackle, but he's taken more reps at right tackle the last week and will continue that.”
With the mixing and matching up front has come several guys stepping up and performing well. One of those is Horton at right guard. Returning with some experience from last year, Horton has shown the ability to move guys in the running game and Hand said the Tigers counting on him to be a guy this year.
“He's got to be,” Hand said. “I know his intentions are to be. He's been doing a great job in his development and his execution, his understanding of the offense. I think Mike has a very high ceiling as well. I love coaching Mike. He's a coachable guy and he wants to be great.
“He'll come off the ball and displace people. When you have Braden on one side of you, if you're double-teaming a three-technique for instance, that helps. I think Robert Leff would attest to that last year. He was a beneficiary playing next to Braden on a lot of the double-teams and things that we have.
“On the right side, that's a nice partner to have working with, and then Austin Golson on the other side. He's got a lot of experience. Mike has the benefit of playing between the two vets, which is always a good thing.”
On the other side Harrell is getting the majority of reps at left guard and has the biggest challenge ahead of him to work his way into the starting lineup. While showing the physical skills to be a player for the Tigers, Harrell needs some fine tuning, said Hand.
“That left guard spot right now is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle we still have to figure out and sort out,” the coach noted. “We've got a few guys that have been repping there and Marquel is one of those guys. I love Marquel's attitude and his work ethic.
“He's got to continue to develop from a technique and fundamental standpoint. In terms of want-to and desire, the guy works his tail off. He'll be fine. It's just is he ready to take over that spot where you had a rock there in Alex Kozan for so many years? That's a question mark for us right now.”
Things could take another turn in the offseason if Auburn lands grad transfer offensive tackle Aaron Cochran out of Cal. A player who could step in and play immediately at tackle, Cochran’s addition could allow James to move to right tackle and slide Smith back inside or even push James to guard himself. Hand said those are all things that will be sorted out if and when the time comes.
“Right now he's playing left and right tackle,” Hand said of James. “That gives us a little bit of flexibility there. Tega (Prince Tega Wanogho Jr.) is really pushing him right now at left tackle as well, which gives us flexibility.
“What you want out of your guard, particularly in this conference, are guys that can move the point and reestablish the line of scrimmage against the three-techniques and nose guard and one-techniques that we play against.
“Darius is physical enough to do that if we needed him to. He thinks he can play anywhere. Right now, he's focusing on left tackle and right tackle and as we get into fall camp we'll sort this other stuff out.”